Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Jordan Brunner
Friday, March 17, 2017, 3:09 PM

In a rare public comment, U.K. signals intelligence agency GCHQ said that the allegations made yesterday by Press Secretary Sean Spicer that the agency spied on President Trump at the request of President Obama were “nonsense,” and “utterly ridiculous,” the Guardian writes. While the Telegraph reported that both Spicer and National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster made a “formal apology” over the unfounded allegations, which derive from an opinion segment shown on Fox News, and the BBC wrote that the administration simply “agreed not to repeat” the claims any further, Spicer told U.S. press this afternoon that he did not apologize and that, “I don’t think we regret anything.”

During a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Trump doubled down on his claims that he had been wiretapped on the orders of President Obama, joking to Merkel that, “as far as wiretapping by this past administration, at least we have something in common” in an apparent reference to 2013 revelations that the NSA tapped Merkel’s phone calls. In the first meeting between the two leaders, Trump appeared to refuse Merkel’s offer of a handshake.

The Wall Street Journal writes that even after a bipartisan statement to the contrary by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Trump continues to stand behind his claim that he was the target of surveillance by the previous administration. According to Spicer during a news briefing yesterday, Trump “stands by” his claim, even as Senators Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-VA) issued a joint statement saying they see “no indications,” that Trump Tower was the subject of surveillance. The statement follows one by Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) and ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence saying that there is “no evidence,” that Trump’s claim is true.

The New York Daily News reports that a laptop computer containing floor plans for Trump Tower, information about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and other national security information was stolen from a Secret Service agent’s vehicle in Brooklyn yesterday. Police have been frantically searching for the computer since it was stolen from the agent’s vehicle, which was parked in their driveway.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Washington’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea was at an end, and that preemptive military action “is an option,” according to CNN. Tillerson stressed that the United States did not seek a military conflict, but would carry out a strike if sufficient provoked. The Wall Street Journal adds that on the heels of Tillerson’s comments, Trump tweeted “North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been “playing” the United States for years. China has done little to help!” Tillerson also stated that countries like China could do more on the subject of sanctions to pressure North Korea and called China’s apparent economic retaliation against South Korea in response to the deployment THAAD missile defense system “inappropriate and troubling.”

Among those retaliatory actions include that the Chinese government’s move to shut down 23 stores in China belonging the South Korean conglomerate that agreed to allow its golf course to be used for the THAAD system, CNN Money informs us. While China said that the closures were due to fire code violations, they come just days after Beijing promised that hosting the THAAD system “could turn into a nightmare” for the conglomerate.

IHS Janes reports that Russia has announced its deepest defense budget cut since the 1990s. Figures released by the Russian Federal Treasury confirm that the cut is 25.5%, and follows an extended period of large increases at the average rate of 19.8% per year since 2011.

Foreign Policy writes that the Trump budget embodies the administration’s nationalism as it calls for a bolstering of military spending and border security while gutting funds for diplomacy, foreign aid, and most of the federal government, specifically scientific research. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said that the cuts to international programs may backfire on the administration, as it might undermine its efforts to pursue cost-cutting reforms at the U.N. The budget as laid out right now will be a heavy lift for the Trump administration even in a GOP Congress according to the New York Times, as many Republicans have expressed concern over specific cuts, and the Hill tells us that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-N.C.) has called it “dead on arrival,” and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has said it cannot pass the Senate.

Foreign Policy tells us that after months of discord between the White House and Defense Secretary James Mattis over key posts within the Pentagon, the Trump administration has finally nominated six civilians to fill the slots. The most significant nomination is that of Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan to be the deputy secretary of defense. Shanahan, who would replace widely-respected Obama holdover Robert Work if confirmed, has no experience in government but brings industry experience, which the White House reportedly valued. Other nominations include David Norquist to be the Pentagon’s comptroller, Elaine McCusker to be Norquist's deputy, and David Joel Trachtenberg, a former congressional staffer and defense official, as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

The Journal informs us that former national security adviser Michael Flynn was paid more than $50,000 by Russian companies shortly before he became a formal adviser to Trump during his presidential campaign and while he continued to hold a top-secret level security clearance. The documents showing the financial transfer come just over a month after Flynn was forced to resign for contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and as investigations continue into connections between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The Times adds that one of the companies Flynn was paid by, Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, “has long been suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence services.”

The New York Times writes that one of the hackers indicted in the Yahoo email theft, Dmitry A. Dokuchaev, has been accused by the Russian government of being a double agent for the United States. But the U.S. government says he doubled as a cyber criminal while he was working for the Russian intelligence service FSB. Dokuchaev was arrested four months ago in Russia, and faces 20 years in prison for suspicion of having passed information to the United States, potentially related to the Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.

The Times reports that the U.S. military has denied reports by Syrian activists that scores of innocent civilians had been killed and injured as a result of an U.S. airstrike. Colonel John J. Thomas, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said that a U.S. airstrike targeted and destroyed a building nearby a mosque that was hosting a meeting of al Qaeda militants. But local activists and the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights said that 42 people had been killed and that rescuers were still sifting through the rubble of the mosque, with pictures posted on Twitter of what looked to be fragments of a U.S. Hellfire missile amongst rubble.

At least 31 Somali refugees were killed in a helicopter attack on a refugee boat off the coast of Yemen, Reuters writes. It is not clear who carried out the attack.

The Times of Israel tells us that the Israeli Air Force shot down an incoming anti-aircraft Syrian missile with an Arrow defense battery early this morning, in the first reported use of the advanced system. The use of the defense system was as a result of Syria firing at Israeli fighter jets, who were conducting strikes against positions in Syria against a Hezbollah weapons convoy. While most of the anti-aircraft missiles missed their target, one had to be intercepted before it caused any damage.

Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun, a Saudi-born man, was convicted yesterday of participating in the 2003 attack in Afghanistan that killed two U.S. servicemen and plotting to bomb a U.S. embassy in West Africa, according to Reuters. A jury found Harun guilty on all counts after only two hours of deliberations. Harun was not present at trial: since being extradited from Italy in 2012 he has demanded a military trial befitting a “warrior,” and has refused to meet and discuss the case with his defense lawyers.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Peter Margulies examined the Hawaii court’s injunction against President Trump’s refugee ban and highlighted the flaws in Maryland court's injunction.

Robert Loeb argued that there was never a national security need for the travel ban.

Jane Chong analyzed whether § 1373 of the Immigration and Nationality Act unconstitutionally commandeers the states.

John Bellinger commented that the Alien Tort Statute case Doe v. Nestle has been dismissed again.

Brandon Valeriano and Benjamin Jensen described what the late Thomas Schelling could tell us about cyber coercion.

Charley Snyder and Michael Sulmeyer presented the effects they believe that Justice Department’s indictment of Russian hackers will have.

Alex Loomis recounted the presentation of witnesses who collected and were custodians of evidence from the Cole bombing at the 3/13 session of this week’s military commissions.

Nora Ellingsen discussed the continued testimony on the Cole bombing in her coverage of the 3/14 session of this week’s military commissions.

Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic asked what happens when the judiciary doesn’t trust the president’s oath.

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